Brian Parish starts to see the green shoots of recovery at Dagenham & Redbridge.
In the not too distant past, football used to be played on Christmas day. More recently, teams used to play the same sides twice over the festive period, and still do in the conference and lower. But in the top division and throughout the football league, the idea of playing more than once around Christmas time has become more and more controversial in the last few years. The idea of a winter break has been put forward on more than one occasion in the last few years. Twelve months ago, when almost the entire country was buried under varying amounts of snow, the idea was put forward that we should shut the leagues down for Christmas, as is common place throughout Europe.
This year, we’ve basked in unusually high temperatures for Christmas, which would have made the shut down look a bit daft. And that’s the thing with the british weather; we all moan about it, but it is the unpredictability that makes a shut down so difficult to call. I appreciate that it may be difficult for some to understand why we don’t follow the rest of the continent (perhaps this is why the national team doesn’t do so well in tournaments, as they’re all knackered from playing for nine/ten months without a pause), but in an era where traditions are being eroded from the game, it is comforting to know that most clubs will still be playing on Boxing Day.
Monday 26th December 2011, Dagenham & Redbridge v Barnet, Victoria Road
This is about the closest we get to a derby game in the football league. I don’t think I really noticed the rivalry when both clubs were in the conference, but it has certainly been stepped up a couple of notches since we have started meeting in the football league. Our first visit as a league club occurred four years ago, and as Barnet cruised to a 3-1 win, they chanted that “Dagenham are going down”, to the tune of EastEnders. At the time, it was probably accurate, but we didn’t and today we are still proud members of the football league, although it is looking tough to maintain that status.
Following our draw up at Burton the weekend before Christmas (which was our first point since about three weeks before the clocks went back an hour), the hope is that this will mark the start of our climb up the table, and away from the dreaded relegation zone. At the start of play, the bottom of the division is quite tight. We’re bottom on 14 points and a goal difference of -20. Plymouth are ahead of us, but only on goals scored, having the same points and goal difference. Northampton are 22nd, but are at home to Burton, and are on 17 points (-18 goal difference). If the results go our way, then we could move up a couple of places by the end of the day. That does rely on us winning though, something we haven’t done for some time.
With Plymouth kicking off at the same time as us, there are a couple of people who will keep a check on that one, but most are just concentrating on our game.
By half time, most of us think that our game is done. Two goals from Christian Montano (on loan from West Ham) has given us a deserved lead, and attention is turned to Plymouth’s game at Bristol Rovers, where Rovers are 2-0 up as well. There is a huge cheer when that score is announced, and the hope that we could (somehow) be out of the relegation zone by the close of play is greater than ever.
The home fans have even more to cheer in the second half, as the Daggers score a third (from a Brian Woodall header), and it gives us the chance to savour a victory that has been a long time coming. With some tube drivers on strike, the chant (to the tune of Go West) of “3-0 and the tubes are f@~*ed” reverberates around the ground. It is bad enough having been beaten comprehensively at any time, but to have to face a journey across London in the middle of a tube strike is probably ten times worse.
At the end of the League 2 programme for the day, we have indeed moved up to 22nd place, and out of the relegation places. Northampton have been beaten at home by Burton, and so drop a place, but you have to feel a bit sorry for Plymouth. From 2 down at half time, they come back to win at Bristol Rovers (which drags them closer to it all), but still manage to drop a place to 24th. How unlucky is that?
Friday 30th December 2011, Dagenham & Redbridge v Gillingham, Victoria Road
And so finally, we come to the last daggers game of 2011. It is at this time that the media starts to get all nostalgic for the year ending, and looking forward to what is to come in the next twelve months. If you follow a sport though that starts in one year, and finished in the next (and therefore straddles this time of year), then all the retrospective stuff is sort of lost. After all, you can only review the calendar year, and not the season as a whole.
If we were to review 2011 from a Daggers point of view though, it would arguably be one of disappointment at relegation from League 1, followed by the struggle to now stay in League 2. While we made a good attempt to stay in the division above, it was ultimately doomed, and as a club we still seem to be haunted by that, even though most would probably agree (hand on heart) that we were somewhat overachieving by being that high up. Highlights included the win over Charlton in March, and then over Carlisle at the end of April which meant that we went up to Peterborough on the final day with a chance of staying up. But since then, it has been tough following the Daggers, and our recent run of nine straight league defeats has not been pretty to watch. Of course, claiming four points from our last two games will hopefully mean that a corner has been turned, and that we can now start to pull away from the bottom of the table, but the next four months are going to be nail-biting stuff. It’s scary to think that we started 2011 with a home game against Southampton, and just twelve months later, we are at the bottom end of League 2, while they are top of the Championship.
It all starts tonight. Gillingham are just outside the play off positions at the start of play, and will be looking to claim the three points to take back across into Kent. If we can build on the last two games, then we may just get something from tonight, but this is just one of a series of tough games that we have over the next few weeks. When you’re at the bottom though, they are all tough.
The rain that soaked us on the way to the ground persists throughout the half, which starts well for the first few minutes for the home side. However, after six minutes, a mix up between Chris Lewington and Scott Doe, results in the ball (at the third time of asking) falling to Danny Kedwell, who smashes the ball into the net.
The next few minutes are almost one way traffic, with Gillingham showing why they are sixth in the division. But the Daggers start to get back into the game, and mid way through the half, get an equalizer. Femi is able to advance and gets the ball to Montano on the left side of the area. His cross is touched back by Brian Woodall, into the path of Billy Bingham, whose shot skids past the dive of Ross Flitney and nestles in the back of the net. The home fans are re-energized, and the game now starts to take on an end-to-end feel, with each team winning a series of corners and having spells of pressure as the half wears on. There are two additional minutes played at the end of the half, but no addition to the score, and so when the whistle is blown for the interval, it is still 1-1.
It continues to pour down for the second half, but there is a growing belief that we might just be able to win this. Like the first half, its end to end stuff, and each team has chances, but while Lewington seems to have shaken off his dodgy moments from the first half, Flitney is not inspiring confidence and looks to be the weak link in the visitors defence. Just past the hour, the winning goal arrives.
A break by the Daggers sees Dominic Green advance on the Gillingham goal with team mates on both the left and right. He chooses the play the ball to the left, and into the path of the consistently improving Brian Woodall. He advances into the area before hitting a low, curling effort past the keeper and just inside the far post. Gillingham have not lost in their last nine games, but are in danger now. The Daggers are playing like we all know they can, but there are a few occasions where the ball doesn’t get hoofed down the pitch, which does make a nice change. The visitors are clearly getting annoyed, as the challenges start to fly in, although the referee is content not to issue any cautions. The game ends just after the rain has stopped, and for the first time since August, we have registered consecutive wins.
There have been times this season when you wonder why you bother, but the last three games have shown that there is some fight in this team. Woodall is clearly benefiting from a regular game, alongside the impressive Montano, who really only needs to control his tendency to mouth off. The injuries that have blighted the first half of the season are starting to clear, although we have lost Josh Scott and Peter Gain over these two games. It will be interesting to see how we cope if our loan players are recalled by their parent clubs. Enough of that though; we’ve moved up from bottom to 20th, and have a couple of big games coming up. There may yet be life in the Daggers yet.